The Riff - August 2009

Music Monday Video: British Popstar M.I.A. Amps Up Her Act

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 7:30 AM EDT

Full Disclosure: I love M.I.A. I have loved M.I.A. since "Sun Showers" was a single, and I will keep loving her long after anyone else does. Even so, I tried not to get my hopes up for her Sunday show at Outside Lands. The complex rythms, beats, and remixes on Kala can't be reproduced on stage. That leaves just Maya Arulpragasm, which is fine for a club or the back of a record store, but not well suited to a stadium. After a lackluster Coachella performance this spring and that just-plain-weird Grammy appearance, there wasn't much to expect.

Fortunately, her hour-long set took me completely by surprise. The rapper has amped up her stage show, with a troupe of back-up dancers (including two almost identical looking redheads in Michael Jackson t-shirts and women gyrating in neon zebra-print leggings), an IMAX worthy video screen replaying a colorized version of the performance in near-real time, and a wardrobe straight out of a 1980s preschool nightmare. Before launching into the single "Boyz", M.I.A. and her back-up militia dumped hundreds of neon plastic horns into the crowd.

  (Translation: "A lot has changed since I last came here. I got engaged here. And then I got pregnant here. And now I'm really, really scared of this fucking town!")

In short, after several near-misses at big shows in the past, Arulpragasm finally seems ready for her close-up. Which is good, since, although Tenacious D technically performed later (filling in for the Beastie Boys), M.I.A. really had the last word on the main stage this past weekend.

 

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Music Monday: 15 Minutes With Bat for Lashes

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 6:30 AM EDT

Natasha Khan might be a warrior on stage, but she didn't look much like her musical persona, Bat For Lashes, when we met her on a dusty access road backstage at Outside Lands. Absent were the circles of glittery eye-shadow, pastiche '80s outfits and feathered headdresses. Khan is known almost as much for her style as for the haunting lyrics and etheral voice that distinguish her sophomore album, Two Suns. Adorned in a simple red dress and brown moccasins with just a hint of blue and gold around her eyes, the singer/songwriter sipped tea and chatted about touring with Radiohead, building buzz in the States, and life after the Big Apple—not to mention magic carpets, emerald cities and the Freudian psychology of Steven Spielberg.

Mother Jones: Is this what you'll be wearing on stage?

Natasha Khan: No, but I want to be comfortable because with festivals it gets quite sunny. It's not so hot which is good. When we played Lollapalooza, it was like 96 degrees and I was wearing full, like, a sparkly leotard and it was a bit much. So I might wear something a bit more comfortable but I'm not sure yet.

MJ: You went from New York City to Joshua Tree National Park on this album. Why?

NK: I wanted to be somewhere that was just really the opposite of New York. [In Joshua Tree] I set about creating my mythology, I suppose. The duality of the landscapes definitely influenced different sounds in the music. It's almost different fairytales. It felt like the desert and the earth and the nature were connnected to the esoteric, spiritual aspects of the record and the more tribal sounds. New York was very much to do with escapism and, like, disillusionment—being subterranian and dark and the sparkely escapist sort of elements which are more to do with numbing yourself. I started to think of this fable: The album is kind of like I go across to New York, to this City made of glass and emeralds. It's me going through that journey.

The MoJo Back-to-School Playlist

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

In the interest of ending family iPod wars, we asked some of our staff breeders to kick down with songs, artists, and albums that they and their young kids both like. We encourage readers to chime in in the comments section with mini-reviews of your own kids' songs that grownups dig and gr'up songs that they enjoy.

Toy Dolls, "Nellie the Elephant"—In 1984, these rowdy Brit-punks re-popularized a ditty first recorded by child actress Mandy Miller in 1956 about a circus elephant that escapes back to the jungle. Huge buildup to a frenzied chorus that makes my 4- and 7-year-old dance like mad; their inevitable refrain: "AGAIN!" (Check out the video here.)
M.I.A., ArularMaya Arulpragasam's 2005 debut has its risqué bits, but they'll fly over the head of anyone under 10. My kids dig the Sri Lanka-born British popstar's vocal quirks and super-catchy, funky beats (even if I’d give Kala, her follow-up record, a C+). In addition to the obvious kid-magnet ("Banana Skit"), my 4-year-old Ruby requests "Pull Up the People" and what she calls the "Bucky" song ("Bucky Done Gun").
Dan Zanes—Suppose I have to acknowledge the guy who repopularized the kids-music-that-grownups-can-stand genre, even if I never want to listen to another Dan Zanes tune until I'm a granddad. A father himself—that’s how he got into this—Zanes mines traditional tunes from around the world for his family-friendly repertoire, bringing on guests like John Doe, Lou Reed, and Aimee Mann for cameos. Pretty cool. But it's also gotten to be quite the earnest empire, with eight albums, compilations and spinoffs, books, a DVD, t-shirts, onesies, stuffed animals, and tote bags. ('m holding out for the action figure.) In short, if you're anything like my family, you will inevitably reach a Dan Zanes burnout point. Say, by age 5. And yes, I am just jealous.
Pete Seeger, Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big)—The title says it. If you can stomach Seeger's earnestness, you won't go wrong with his epic collection of traditional American tunes about critters, first released back in 1955. A majority of these 28 tracks are more pleasurable than annoying, with the exception of the vastly overexposed ditties like "I Know an Old Lady" and "Teency Weency Spider." A little creative iTunes editing will do wonders for your sanity.
Mississippi John Hurt, 1928 Sessions—My first baby adored this, it's quiet enough to put kids to bed by, and it's just a damn fine listen, evocative of simpler times. Although from ages three to five I had to skip over a few tunes due to occasionally violent imagery, as in "Ain't No Tellin'" (Don't you let my good girl catch you here/ She might shoot you, may cut and starve you too/Ain't no tellin' what she might do.) But now that Nikko is 7 and enjoys cutting off my metaphorical limbs with metaphorical swords, he can once again enjoy Hurt's sublimely soulful, scratchy, old-time-blues fingerpicking. Besides, it's only a matter of time before he discovers my Straight Outta Compton LP. —Michael Mechanic, senior editor

S.E. Rogie, Dead Men Don't Smoke Marijuana—Once you get past the album title, this is a bunch of mellow, lovable tunes that allude to nothing more nefarious than romance and maybe a drink or two. Sung in English and pidgin by a master of Sierra Leonean "palm wine" music, who sadly died a couple of years ago.

Music Monday: Dirtbombs, Dengue, TV on the Radio Top Outside Lands

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 5:30 AM EDT

San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival, spanning Friday through Sunday here in idyllic Golden Gate Park, had something of a split personality disorder. The festival’s two main stages, as this map shows, occupy opposite ends of the festival’s vigilantly guarded fenced-off area—and as far as Friday and Saturday’s shows went, the contrast in each stage’s fare couldn’t be more stark.

On Friday, rockers of various stripes held court at the main stage at the Polo Field, from Built to Spill and Silversun Pickups to Incubus and headliners Pearl Jam. Several singers at the main stage, however, were snake-bit that first day, it seemed—both Incubus’ Brandon Boyd and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sounded hoarse, and both limped through their sets and called on the crowd for help more times than I could count. But while Incubus was hardly spectacular (like their more recent albums), Pearl Jam tore through hit after hit, especially in the set’s second half, when Vedder seemed to loosen up a bit and the crowd chimed in plenty.

A Weekend of Rebellious Rock 'n' Roll Brought to You by...

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 1:18 AM EDT

The girl nervously watched as the tattoo formed on her hand, a small, colorful flower in the fleshy crook between her thumb and forefinger. Up close, though, the flower’s shape came into focus: It was actually a stem and bulb formed by the silhouettes of tiny cars. Mid-size sedans, actually. That’s because this particular tent, peddling not just tattoos but bandanas and gift bags, was Toyota's “Prius Spot” tent, one of several scattered around this past weekend's Outside Lands festival in San Francisco. A tricked-out version of the popular hybrid sat parked inside.

I asked the flower girl’s boyfriend why anyone would want a flower made of sedans or an automaker's name inked on their hand. He shrugged. "It’s only temporary, right?"

Others stepped up for tattoos of their own, choosing between the Camry-inspired flower or a tangle of barbs encircling Toyota’s logo with the name “TOYOTA” emblazoned underneath. Indeed, a winged skull with the Toyota logo was among the most popular tattoos of the day, one of the inkers told me.

Needless to say, the ploy took branding to a whole new level.

Like that girl’s hand, just about every other inch of this weekend’s Outside Lands festival was “Presented by” or “Courtesy of” or sponsored in some capacity by a corporation or company. It was brand overload all weekend (at least for me), the staggering number of companies' names plastered throughout the festival's grounds staggering.

GQ's Douchiest Colleges

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 2:04 PM EDT

GQ has just released the first ever list of 25 Douchiest Colleges. Introducing its "heavily researched, possibly stereotypey, but still accurate guide," the editors write, "The question isn't whether you're a douche bag when you go to college. We were all kind of douche bags when we went to college, if we're going to be honest about it. No, the question for America's youth is: What kind of douche bag do you aspire to be?" According to their results, you should attend #1 Brown University if you are a "limousine liberal" douche bag who's interested in such courses as "On Vampires and Violent Vixens: Making the Monster Through Discourses of Gender and Sexuality."

GQ's list brings up some important questions that students should think about before they apply to colleges. For example:

Where can you go if you want to major in Jet Skiing? How about if you're a trust-fund type but are embarrassed about it? What if you want to lord your intelligence over people for the rest of your life, in the form of a bumper sticker?

It likely won't surprise you that many of the top scorers on GQ's list also rank high on US News & World Report's annual list of top colleges and universities. But none of 'em made it onto the 2009 "MoJo Mini College Guide," complete with some of the best schools you've never heard of that won't destroy your wallet, the best jobs that don't require a college degree, and some of the more... uh... creative funding options out there. Think of it as a college roadmap for the thrifty, progressive douche.

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Music Monday: Playing for Change

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 2:03 AM EDT

Back when Mark Johnson founded Playing for Change, the concept was simple: Unite the world through music. His first success story was a video featuring musicians from around the globe performing "Stand by Me," the old feel-good hit by Ben E. King. It starts with a street guitarist in Santa Monica and proceeds around the world adding new musical layers as it goes. So far that video has received some 13 million hits on YouTube, and Johnson's project has spawned a PBS documentary, CDs, a DVD, an upcoming concert tour, and a foundation to bring music to disadvantaged communities. I caught up with Johnson last week to talk about the monks that inspired him, his unusual mobile recording studio, and how he's seen music change lives.

To listen to the podcast of this interview, click here.

Mother Jones: In a nutshell, what is Playing for Change? What inspired it, and what are you trying to accomplish?

Mark Johnson: Playing for Change is a global movement using media, music, technology, and inspiration to try to unite as many people around the world as possible. The original idea came about 10 years ago. I was recording music at a New York City studio, and I was on my way to work one day, and I saw two monks painted all in white from head to toe. One was playing a nylon guitar and the other one was singing. I saw about 200 people stop, and everybody's watching this performance. Some are crying and jaw-dropping and smiling, and I look around and see a collection of people who normally just run right by each other, and here they are coming together for this music. Then I got on the train and I went to the recording studio and I realized the best music I ever heard in my life was on the way to the studio, not in the studio. That's when I realized great music, great art—they're just moments in time. They exist everywhere, and we can use these moments in time to connect people and bring inspiration. And that led to the idea of traveling the world with a mobile recording studio and cameras, filming, recording, and interviewing musicians, and connecting them together with songs around the world, such as "Stand by Me" and "One Love."

Branding 101: What Not to Name Your Hedge Fund

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 11:50 AM EDT

Branding is everything. So when you're starting up a new hedge fund and are going for something memorable and daring, well, "Ground Zero" probably isn't your best bet. Tell that to this ex-Lehmann brothers exec Edward Fillippe. Quips NY Mag:

Maybe he said to himself, "What can I do to distract people from the fact that I worked at Lehman Brothers, the downtown–New York–based bank that collapsed disastrously and nearly took the entire financial system with it? I know! I'll name it in homage to an even worse collapse, one that actually killed people and precipitated several long and tragic wars! Then everyone will think whatever I am doing is not nearly as bad."

The Ground Zero Strategic Commodities Fund will begin trading by the first quarter of 2010, and they're hiring!

Fiji Water: Non-Fat and Zero Calories!

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 11:44 AM EDT

In this issue's expose of Fiji Water, Spin the Bottle, we write about the company's image as the water of choice for celebrities. Now, with New York Fashion Week approaching, it's another opportunity for the water to brand itself as an upscale product. The company is sponsoring a contest for one water fan to win backstage tickets to one designer show at New York Fashion Week.

There are two issues I have with this. Firstly, why only one show? There are dozens of shows at the New York fashion week, it would be better if they could at least let their winner go to more than one. Secondly, the blinged-out logo here is kind of ugly, and I don't get the connection between diamonds and fashion. Maybe because both couture and diamonds cost money? Like ...Fiji Water? As we pointed out in the article, Fiji does often cost up to three times as much as competitors, so yeah, maybe the diamonds do make sense after all.

Fiji Water Makes McSteamy's Threesome Sex Tape!

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 5:56 PM EDT

Okay, so I watched the McSteamy sex tape.

For work.

Since I got a tip that Fiji Water made an appearance. You see, our next issue's cover story is on the ubiquity of the fashionable water that may be the epitome of cool, but is also imported from a military dictatorship and is far from eco anything.

From what I can tell, and I'm not really a sex-tape connoisseur, this particular three-minutes-I'll-never-get-back offers up naked C- and D-list actors (Grey's Anatomy's Eric Dane and his wife of Noxema fame, Rebecca Gayheart) hanging out with a whiny lady (and apparently former Miss USA, how those pageants embolden) who makes phone calls half-naked for the camera and complains about the staying power of lighted rubber duckies. (Since this is a family channel I am not embedding the video here, but you can head over to Gawker at your own risk for the link.)

They just talk about getting it on; there is no real action. And we only care, apparently, because there are lots of boob shots. And talk about how sexy and cool they are. ("You're the prettiest girls this side of Mulholland;" not a great boast when your competition stops at the ocean.) And would it be the talk of the entertainment news shows proclaiming the glory of "Dane's Anatomy" if it were two dudes and a girl? Maybe, but Dane's career might head in a different direction. Not to mention, the last sex tape that was actually a "tape" was probably something George Michael was involved in in the early 90s. Enter the sex MP3!

But back to my work mission.